28 Jul 2010

Juvenille Violence? Oh, Yeah, Whatever Happened With That?

photo uploaded to flickr by The Library of Virginia

We tend not to pay a whole lot of attention to juvenile crime, until a spate of high profile events hit us. Before Snowpocalypse drove it from minds, carjacking was on top of everyone’s minds. And some time before that a spate of crimes near Potomac Avenue Metro was heating up the listservs. But between those, we tend to focus on other things.

Some time ago, I addressed the issue of juvenile violence in this forum, so it’s all the more embarrassing that I’ve not been paying attention when a series bills on this topic passed the Council recently and I didn’t take note. It’s easy to get wrapped up in more immediately important things. Until, of course, the next round of violent and senseless attacks hit and we all start yelling for somebody to “do something!”

But let’s take advantage of the relative calm to look at this series of legislation, all introduced by our Councilmember. The first is the cumbersomely named “Safe Children and Safe Neighborhood Educational Neglect Amendment Act of 2010,” which passed July 13th. Most notably, it reduces the number of days of unexcused absences (from 20 to 10) before a school has to notify the Child and Family Services Agency.

On one hand, about time. We all, of course, remember the Benita Jacks tragedy, where the 5, 6, and 11 year olds who died were not even reported missing to CFSA by their schools. Early intervention is critical in identifying and hopefully solving tragic situations like that one, and dozens if not hundreds of others across the city.

On the other, as a parent, I will be watching closely how this is implemented. Schools are often reluctant to classify family vacations as “excused” and I don’t want to be reported if I choose, as a responsible parent, to take my kids on a trip. But getting schools to be more understanding of family trips is the subject for another discussion. I should also note that notifying CFSA is not always enough; in the Jacks tragedy, CFSA was notified through the absence of the 16 year old child  and failed to properly respond. Or even to seem to give a damn.

Another promising leap forward passed alongside the truancy bill, the “Expanding Access to Juvenile Records Amendment Act of 2010” (can we get some new names, please?!?!). It aims to break down barriers between various city agencies. Previously, legitimate privacy concerns were blocking information sharing between MPD, CFSA, schools, and others. As Councilmember Wells put it, “a youth may have skipped two weeks of school, been kicked out of a recreation center for a fight, and been stopped by police for riding in a stolen vehicle. Taken alone, each of these instances are concerning, but may not raise all the red flags needed.”

This has been a long-identified problem, and fulfills some of the key points of the Ward 6 Juvenile Crime Task Force (.pdf) report from a couple of years ago. Among their other recommendation was the “creation of an interagency database and assessment tool for tracking at-risk youth.” Set up under the recently passed “Data-Sharing and Information Coordination Amendment Act of 2010” (and now you’re just messing with me), the Juvenile Records Act will improve on it by adding info sharing on juvenile crime.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, an amendment to the Juvenile Records Act “requires that the report include not only info on where the crime occurs, but include info on where the juvenile is ‘from,’” according to Councilmember Wells Chief of Staff Charles Allen. With so many rumors and half-truths flying around whenever a rash of crime hits, let’s hope this will be able to provide real data to properly understand who is committing these crimes, why they are doing it, and hey, maybe, just maybe, fix it at the source. We can dream, can’t we?

Unfortunately, while Councilmember Wells pushed for this data to be released at the census tract level, the Council only went for PSA level detail. But hey, it beats the ZIP code level which was the previous standard.

Taken in total, these represent some important incremental steps forward, plugging some long overdue holes and allowing us to better understand where our crime is coming from. Our crime won’t be solved overnight and it is, well, frankly juvenile, to expect it to, but this is yet another step in the right direction.

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  • Kathleen

    Thanks for yet another informative article, Tim. Last night at the mayoral forum the candidates seemed to think that plenty more needed to be done, including electronic bracelets for youths convicted of certain violent crimes. I think this idea (which I think came from V. Gray, but I am not sure) can be traced back to the murder of DC school principal Brian Betts. You may remember that some (all?) of the suspects in that case had been convicted of other crimes and were actually supposed to be in a kind of detention/halfway house. Apparently these are easy to slip away from.
    Property crimes are one thing, and they certainly deserve attention, but was anything addressing this problem included in these proposals?

  • Tim Krepp

    It’s a good point, Kathleen.

    It seems like every time an incident happens (Mr. Betts murder, South Capitol shooting, etc.), it turns out the perpetrator (and often the victim) were under the supervision of the Dept of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

    DYRS is broken. As is our system of youth rehabilitation and punishment.

    So yes, the focus of these bills are fixing structural problems in other aspects of the juvenile crime. Fine. Great actually. Councilmember Wells and others have worked hard to get this done and credit is due.

    But I, for one, will be watching to see what comes down the pipe to change how we treat violent criminals. Even the ones that are under 18.

  • ASW

    Thanks for keeping up with this. I appreciate the information!

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